Every once in a while, life gives you a little jolt, sending you reminders not to take certain everyday things for granted. This week was one of those moments. Tuesday morning at 6AM – the morning after Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of the New York/New Jersey area – I have never in my life been so grateful for the arrival of daylight.
Of course, I was already up waiting for it, having spent the entire night peering out the window of my New Jersey home, watching enormous old trees bend and fall all around us, listening to wind and debris batter my home, and trying desperately to squeeze out text messages to the other PhotoShelter managers across a damaged AT&T communications network, all the while terrified for the minute-by-minute safety of my family. The night sky was faintly illuminated in each direction by the blue-green light of electrical transformers exploding with regularity as trees brought down more wires.
10PM Monday. With no power since late Monday afternoon, we huddled in our bedroom listening to an old portable radio, our only reliable link to the outside world, getting updates on the worsening situation in New York and up and down the Jersey shore. We’d tired the kids out letting them play with glow sticks and flashlights until they finally fell asleep. We were being overly careful to manage their perception of the storm, after they were traumatized only a year ago when Hurricane Irene filled our neighborhood with water and destroyed so many of their toys and 1/3 of our home. This time, we were “prepared,” and had moved everything – seriously, everything – upstairs to avoid losing property in the event of another flood.
The two last text messages I received were first from my neighbor Steve:
“Huge tree next door just fell, your neighbor’s car is totaled.”
Then, from Jeffrey Arnold, PhotoShelter’s head of network operations:
“Site’s down, power issue at NY data center. Investigating.”
I was able to tweet for about 30 minutes regarding the site issues, then with my cell signal deteriorating, I was able to ask Caroline, our product manager on the West Coast, to take over member communications. And then I was cut off…no more data access on my mobile.
2AM. Silence. To calm my own nerves, I sat with a flashlight reading the instruction manual to the portable generator we’d just bought (and eating doughnuts). “You will be killed or seriously hurt if you don’t follow these instructions.” I laughed – just hoping for the opportunity to use it – hoping that the power outage would be our most significant problem. I paced through my house waving my phone in the air, hoping for more than one bar to magically appear. I stared intermittently at the phone and out a repeating cycle of different windows. It felt like the biggest, most threatening trees were mocking me as they danced and waved. I considered and calculated which direction they’d ultimately fall. All the while, I was comforted and reassured by the notion that between Jeffrey and Caroline, the site issues would be quickly resolved and effectively communicated to our members. Despite wanting desperately to know that the situation was in fact remedied, all I could do was wait out the storm.
5AM. The rain stopped. The winds died down. Still no apparent damage as far as I could tell from inside – a huge relief. Still no water had flooded into the house – a massive relief. Still total darkness outside. I’m up everyday at 5am normally, but Tuesday morning it was a different kind of darkness. The kind that’s scary because you’re not sure if what’s familiar will still be out there or not.
6AM. Daylight came. I stepped outside just as one or two other neighbors did too. I was happy to see their tired, worry-worn faces. Massive trees were down everywhere. Multiple houses and cars were hit badly on each side. Lightposts and telephone poles were snapped like twigs, and both outlets to our street were fully blocked. I looked back at my house and thought, “We’re OK.” We got lucky. Somehow the damage and pain decided to avoid us. We got lucky that when my kids woke up, their biggest challenge was no lights and no hot breakfast. They’re saying we’ll be without regular power for two weeks and it will be very hard to find gas for the generator. But still, we got really, really lucky.
12PM. Still locked in by fallen trees and expecting them to be there for a while, I walked far enough away to catch a second bar on my iPhone, and the texts started rolling in. Jeffrey, from the middle of the night: “Site’s back up. Problem was the backup generator at the data center.” Caroline: “Lots of people wishing us well on Twitter and the member forums.” We’re OK. Another massive relief.
I remained without significant web/text/phone access through Wednesday. All the while, the PhotoShelter team mobilized around our crisis prep plan. They made sure each other were well accounted for, and even opened up their homes to team members left without power or drenched apartments. Everyone on their own initiative has been working from home or wherever they sought refuge and power. They’ve creatively assembled a customer support system that’s worked really well. And despite a brief interruption amid a catastrophic storm, and lacking a homebase due to the ongoing power outage in our office, they’ve managed to maintain an unexpected level of normalcy. They’re not simply making do in the wake of the storm, but pushing forward on their regular projects. They’ve done so with very little direction and the personal pride and desire to make our product better that they bring to our office everyday, and I am so proud of them. I’m so lucky to work with them.
And on Thursday I finally got a peek at the messages of encouragement and support from our members, some equally impacted by the storm and some from half a world away. I saw messages from wedding, nature, and sports photographers who we’ve come to call friends over the years, and some from photojournalists who put themselves in the way of a greater danger than we’ll ever comprehend. These messages were heartfelt, compassionate and truly moving. I can’t possibly express enough gratitude for your support and loyalty and understanding when many of us have been displaced, devastated, and shaken up by this event. It gave me a chance to reflect on our lasting partnership. Your messages gave us a very real boost when many of us really needed it – and for that I feel incredibly lucky, too.
By most accounts, we’ll have power back in the office this weekend. And on Monday we’ll start a new week, fresh. We’ll do so with a new vigor and an even deeper commitment than ever before to help support your pro photography business. Thank you for making us feel so lucky.